Pop-up book teaches children about gravitational waves

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An illustrated pop-up book, written by staff at Glasgow University, is teaching children in India about gravitational waves and encouraging them to pursue any career they want.

Listen to Universe was published on September 14, coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the first detection of gravitational waves back in 2015, at the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) in the USA.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Copies of the book will be supplied to schools in the Hingoli district, in western India, where LIGO-India will soon become the most recent addition to a growing international network of gravitational wave detectors.

All movement generates small gravitational waves, but the largest are created in space by events which produce a colossal amount of energy, such as collisions between black holes or stars exploding as they near the end of their lifecycles. The energy released causes ripples in space and time. Unnoticeable in everyday life, the waves are detected on Earth using lasers at LIGO sites.

“One of the most important things for us was to inspire girls and boys to realise that they can be anything they want – and that girls can be astrophysicists!” said Dr Mariela Massó Reid, co-author of the book and research associate at Glasgow University’s Institute for Gravitational Research.

“We were incredibly excited when formal approval for the building of LIGO-India came from the Indian Prime Minister in 2016.

“However, we were also very conscious that a large observatory was going to be built close to many rural communities. Our initial aim was to introduce and explain the purpose of these large instruments to local people,” she added.

She explained that the tale aims to show that “a new generation of scientists and engineers will be needed to operate these new observatories” and the authors “hope that many parents will read the book with their children, and learn about the technology along with them.”

The story follows a conversation between two children – Lila and Gopu – who live in the Hingoli district. Lila is slightly older than Gopu and explains the science behind gravitational waves to him, beginning with the suggestion of their existence first posited in 1915 by Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity, right up to their detection a full century later.

The sixteen-page publication is written in Marathi, the language spoken locally to the new detector site, with images by British illustrator Oliver Dean.

“We were keen to work closely with our colleagues in India to make sure that the book is as culturally recognisable as possible,” said Dr Dimitria Fimi, co-author and Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at Glasgow University’s School of Critical Studies.

“We worked hard with them and with Oliver, who has spent time living and working in India himself, to make sure kids would see themselves in our Lila and Gopu.”

She added: “It was also important to us that we showed that girls are interested in science, and that science is a career open to all.

“We made a conscious decision to have the girl in our story be a little bit older and a little bit wiser, and able to explain the history and science behind gravitational waves.”

The detection of gravitational waves presents new possibilities for how the universe can be studied and what we can learn about it. However, it is an incredibly precise science.

At LIGO, lasers and mirrors are used to measure whether the space between two fixed points has shrunk by a miniscule amount, indicating that a gravitational wave has altered time and space.

The waves are invisible and travel at the speed of light; the first waves detected in 2015 were caused by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago.

Members of LIGO-India’s education and public outreach team also supported the project, plus an online reading and question session with their representatives will take place later today.

The authors are excited to see how the book is received and are keen to explore the potential for translating it into multiple languages to reach children all over the world.